JAMES P. BECKWOURTH
One of the outstanding figures in the early history of California—and indeed of the entire west—was James P. (“Jim”) Beckwourth noted trapper, frontiersman, scout, guide and Indian chief, whose name is preserved not only in the archives of history, but in the name of one of the best known passes of the Sierra mountains and that of one of the thriving towns of Plumas County. The story of his life is the record of successive thrilling experiences, narrow escapes, and courageous service on the frontiers, extraordinary relations with the Indians and physical endurance and stamina almost unbelievable. Beckwourth was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1798, and came of sterling old American stock, his father having been an officer in the Revolutionary War. In 1805, when he was seven years of age, his family moved to Missouri, locating at what is still known as Beckwourth’s Settlement, about twelve miles below St. Charles. There he grew to sturdy young manhood and when he was only nineteen years of age was attached to Colonel R. M. Johnson’s expedition to treat with the Sacs and Foxes, and to work lead mines in the Galena region. Not long afterward he joined General Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and from 1817 until he started for California in 1844, his life was a succession of hairbreadth escapes, Indian battles and fortunes made and lost. He served under Bent and Sublette in the west and was with General Jessup during the Seminole war in Florida. Jim Beckwourth acquired a wide reputation for courage, honor and sagacity, whereby he became first counselor of the Crow Indian Nation, and finally was made head chief. He led that tribe in countless forays against the Sioux and Blackfeet Indians, and while with the Crows effectually protected the lives and property of white people. He ruled his tribe with a rod of iron, his popularity and power being due to his intimate knowledge of Indian nature and his unsurpassed mass-trooper instinct. He was never more pleased than when in the saddle, leading a war party by night marches to assault Liban or Comanche encampment, or to stampede their horses and dash away again like a whirlwind. One of the dozen or more Indian names which had been given him meant in English “Enemy of horses.”
One of Beckwourth’s most noted physical feats was performed about 1822 while he was engaged in trapping beaver near the Snake River. He was pursued by over two hundred Indians and ran all day without food or water, covering a distance of not less than ninety-five miles before he reached Sublette’s camp. This feat ranks in the tales of the west with Bent’s famous ride twenty years later. In 1836, while Beckwourth was in St. Louis and was still chief of the Crows, a foolish trapper told the tribe that he had been killed. The Indians at once surrounded Fort Cass with thousands of warriors determined to take immediate vengeance. After much parleying a truce of three months was agreed upon, until word could be sent to Beckwourth to come and rescue the beleaguered fort, which contained one hundred thousand dollars’ worth of goods. A trapper named Pappen was paid one thousand dollars to deliver the message to Beckwourth and the Crows encamped to await results. The fur company paid Beckwourth five thousand dollars and all expenses to return at once and, with two companions, he rode the entire distance in fifty days, thus saving the fort from destruction.
Afterward Beckwourth traded in New Mexico and in 1844 he led an expedition to California, reaching Los Angeles in January of that year. He was one of the most active of the revolutionists in 1845 under General Castro. He was the leader of thirteen American riflemen who first joined Castro and was lieutenant of the subsequent corps of one hundred and sixty men which captured the Pueblos of Santa Barbara and Monterey, defeating Sutter’s forces. In 1847, when war was declared between the United States and Mexico, Beckwourth and his company of troopers numbering less than a dozen, collected over eighteen hundred horses in the Los Angeles region and drove them to Arkansas in safety. He then carried dispatches from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe and other points and on one occasion covered nine hundred and thirteen miles in fifteen days.
In 1848 Beckwourth returned to California, and here assisted in bringing to justice the perpetrators of the Reed murders near San Miguel, when a respected English family and their servants, eleven in all, were killed by fourteen desperadoes in order to secure a thousand dollars’ worth of gold dust. The Englishman’s ranch was twenty-five miles from the nearest house and Beckwourth was the person who discovered the dead, less than an hour after the outrage was committed. He rode seventy-two miles that night and collected a band of forty men and twenty more the following day. They separated and Beckwourth with twenty men overtook the desperadoes. In the ensuing attack two of the murderers were killed and the others were captured, tried by lynch law and shot. After this Beckwourth became a familiar figure in the gold camps of the Sierras, from Hangtown to Shasta.
In 1851 Beckwourth discovered what has since been known as Beckwourth Pass, the lowest gap in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and through which the Western Pacific Railroad has been built on a maximum grade of one per cent between Salt Lake City and San Francisco. For a number of years Jim lived in what was long known as Beckwourth’s valley, a fertile and attractive locality, now known as the Sierra valley. He died in his lonely cabin in Colorado many years ago, without the attendance of kindly friends, but respected by all who knew him and his heroic deeds. The Native Daughters of the Golden West are now preparing to erect a suitable monument to his memory. He was rather under medium size, but was possessed of remarkable strength and endurance. He was fearless and courageous in the face of danger, and was proud of the part he had played in the great drama of the west, being well known for his vivid descriptive powers in relating his adventures.
Transcribed by Gerald Iaquinta.
© 2010 Gerald Iaquinta.